Druid Lane Theatre, Galway Arts Festival
My review of Olwen Fouéré's riverrun coming up just as soon as I look astronomically fabula ...
What does it say when one of the most preeminently-regarded works of literature remains widely unread? Most likely that it's won the approval of the academics but not the public.
Who has found a way through Finnegan's Wake - the last novel by James Joyce, the author's ultimate bid for a literary scene for the discontinuous twentieth century, and one of the most difficult works in the English language? Even scholars struggled to reach consensus on the Wake. T.S. Eliot denounced it as "merely beautiful nonsense" while Samuel Beckett celebrated how content and form both assumed each other: "His writing is not about something; it is that something itself".
As TheEmergencyRoom taps the well of this work, one has to wonder if they will be any more successful in drawing an audience. But upon entering the Druid Lane Theatre, Olwen Fouéré holds a certain gravity, her hair moon white, her bare feet stepping gently across a dew dusted floor. The tide of history is against her and steadily she stands, like a rock in its flow, attempting to drag that wild river that flows through the novel onto the stage.
riverrun captures the voice of Anna Livia Plurabelle, the river woman who courses through Dublin. From Chapelizod to Clontarf she flows, touching on local institutions and history with the salty slander thrown across the river by two gossiping washerwomen.
The text is completely discontinuous and non-linear though, and such is the source of strong frustration in the audience. Try as you might, you'll constantly lose your footing. Hold on too tight to your narrative reasoning and you'll sink to the bottom. To get through the Wake, to arrive at its divine destination, you'll need to betray those instincts to insist narrative, to insist structure. It's a big asking (perhaps too big) but you have to give all your trust and let the current take you.
Unabsorbable passages gush from the Breton-born Fouéré, rolling multi-lingual puns and idiosyncrasies with a deftness that suggests her careful study of the text. Her voice rings through a microphone with joyous tenor, and sharp gusts of breath instill the lapping of waves. In the rays of Stephen Dodd's dusk lighting, with the harmonies of Alma Kelliher's sound design streaming alongside, the elemental Fouéré calls forth a raw feeling under the surface of language, a flow that viciously engulfs life and death, then rising, gently and kindly, in a new wave of new life.
By the curtain call there is no denying having witnessed a certain beauty, maddening and mysterious as it may be. It feels that the true nature of it has rushed by you, that is until the experience calms in your mind. The pure power of it is to suspend us in a moment of healing, to wash over us in pure relief a joyous sense of being saved.
To condense Finnegan's Wake to a pool of summary and meaning would be to reduce it. Fouéré in riverrun (who gives the greatest performance of the year so far) leads us to the power source of the work, to a landscape beyond language, where art has been fundamentally changed forever.
What did everybody else think?